Monday, 17 December 2007

The Etiquette Bell

I hope it won't be regarded as a breach of taste if I digress briefly on Public Conveniences. Washrooms, Restrooms - the euphemisms are many and often less felicitous than the couple I mention. Specifically, my topic is public conveniences in South Korea. Now, the South Koreans appear to be very proud of the standards of their public facilities and, based on limited experience at Incheon International Airport recently, their pride is well-justified. But a couple of aspects rather spooked me at the time and I'd like to share them with you.

Over the last few years, dispensers for disposable paper toilet seat covers have become fairly commonplace. But the South Koreans have gone beyond this technology. When I entered the cubicle, I found the seat covered with a slightly-wrinkled clear plastic, almost as if the builder had forgotten to remove the protective packaging. A brief examination suggested that the seat was intended to be used in this state, but I was quite unprepared for what happened after use. In addition to the normal flushing, with a swishing noise the plastic encapsulating the seat moved around the periphery of the seat. Some motorised mechanism behind the pedestal appeared to be supplying fresh plastic, whilst the used seat cover was consumed by another mechanism. When the seat had a completly pristine, but equally wrinkled cover, the mechanism stopped. Questions about the practical difficulties of creating such a machine filled my mind, but I was far too surprised to make a more detailed study.

On another occasion, I discovered the 'Etiquette Bell'. This time, the partition wall of the cubicle mounted what looked like an intercom system - a rectangular plastic box bearing a pushbutton, loudspeaker and the tantalising name 'Etiquette Bell'. Being bewildered as to the intended function, I refrained from pushing the button in case it triggered a response from some 'International Rescue' organisation. Afterwards, a little research revealed that the actual purpose was slightly more prosaic. In order to maintain suitable modesty in circumstances where there may be inadvertent noises from users of the facilities, it had become common practice to flush prematurely. This meant that the sound of running water from the flushing would mask any more personal sounds. But as awareness of the effects mankind is having on the ecology of the Earth grew, it became less acceptable to waste water simply in order to save embarrassment. Electronics came to the rescue - instead of actually flushing, depressing the button on the 'Etiquette Bell' plays a recording of the sound of flushing for a few seconds. If necessary, this recording can be triggered repeatedly, without the guilt associated with needlessly flushing actual water. Practical experiment showed that the sound recording is completely indistinguishable from genuine flushing, although the busier facilities can become rather deafening at times!

I must admit that, coming from our rather vulgarian society, I found the consideration for others which prompted the invention of the 'Etiquette Bell' rather charming.